We are in Acts yet again. We are picking up on last week’s text. Last week we talked about how Jesus had been crucified. The Holy Spirit descended and invigorated the disciples. Now these disciples are apostles, teaching and preaching in what was being referred to by them and by other Jews, as “The Way.”
Isn’t that a great name? That name points to the fact that they were on a journey. Forgive me for using a ho-hum cliché. But I’m going to use it anyway. They were, as are we all, on a journey. Life’s journey. The Way.
Jesus’ life and resurrection presents us with The Way to live according to God’s will and in hope, faith and love. The Jewish temple authorities, though? Well, they feel threatened by “The Way.” I’m not sure why. Maybe it was all about politics. They wanted to maintain their hold on religious authority. People of the Way, even though they had no interest in destroying or taking over the Jewish hierarchy, were super charged with their new faith. They had to share it, and they did. So the temple authorities decided that the best way to deal with them was to simply get rid of them. They were being stoned, burned, you get the picture. Some of them were put in prison as we read about last week.
Last week though, we didn’t get into where some of those people of “The Way” were being imprisoned. I want to get to that now.
Those Christ followers were being imprisoned in a temple jail. Isn’t that strange--that a place of worship would have a jail?
The way I understand it, at the time of the early Christ movement, although at this point I am not even sure you could call it a movement, you had the Roman Empire leading over all. Caesar was worshiped as the God of the Roman Empire. He required that he be worshiped by all his subjects. But at the local level, other governments and faith traditions were allowed to continue operating. The only caveat was, the leaders of those local governments and religious faiths had to pledge allegiance to Caesar.
Jerusalem was the headquarters of the Jewish faith. Under the head Jewish priest in Jerusalem, there were lots of other priests and also other religious personnel including Sadducees and Pharisees. Saul himself was a Pharisee. One of the jobs of all of these people was to keep the peace. The Jewish temple had created stringent Jewish rules and laws and the temple had the authority, recognized by Rome, to inflict punishment when someone broke those laws. The punishment could be as severe as execution, or if not so severe, imprisonment. The temple, then, actually operated jails and it paid prison guards. It seems so strange to us, doesn’t it?
So someone maybe wants to see the inside of our lovely Scottsville Presbyterian Church, You let them in, point out the gorgeous architecture, and then you say, “Now, would you like to see our dungeon?” But who are we kidding? We who are Protestants have our own bleak history of religiously motivated witch hunts, drownings, burninigs and hangings. John Calvin, the founder of our wonderful Presbyterian faith tradition, ordered and then carried out the execution of a man he considered to be a heretic. Today we would say that this man was in fact, a firm believer in the faith.
So back to Jerusalem. Saul, himself, a good Pharisee, is threatened by these people of “The Way.” And it’s his job really, to maintain order. He decides to gather them up and take them to Jerusalem and to the temple prison. He’s given permission to do that by the authorities in Jerusalem. He’s on his way to Damascus, then, where Saul has heard that there is an entire colony of “People of the Way.”
The resurrected Jesus, though, gets to Saul, before he has a chance to fulfill that mission.
And you heard the story as it played out on that Road to Damascus. Saul has a conversion experience.
Actually, there are several different versions of Saul’s conversion recorded in scripture, though—there’s another in Acts and still another in Galatians. The most striking difference in those versions is that in the one I just read, everyone traveling with Saul sees a bright light and hears Jesus’ voice. In the second version in Acts, though, although everyone sees the light, only Saul hears Jesus’ voice. That’s quibbling over details. Or in Italian, cercare il pelo nell'uovo. Which means I think, according to my new Italian son-in-law, “looking for lice eggs on one’s hair.” That’s pretty graphic don’t you think? It means nitpicking. Comparing and contrasting the specifics of Saul’s conversion experience, amounts to nitpicking.
The important take away is that Saul has some kind of emotionally charged experience. It turns his life upside down and inside out and changes the rest of his life.
Now I want to talk some about conversion.
Jonathan Edwards, an American pastor who lived in the early to mid-1700’s, was inspired by Saul’s story. Or maybe it was that he had an experience similar to that of Saul’s. However it was, Jonathan Edward’s preaching about conversion took off and so began a movement that spread beyond our own continent, even. It is called The Great Awakening.
A quick side note. I found out this week that Jonathan Edwards was the grandfather of Aaron Burr, who, if you’ve seen the musical, Hamilton, you know is the dark villain of Alexander Hamilton’s life story.
But back to Jonathan Edwards. He and other Great Awakening preachers did their preaching at revivals. They spoke before huge crowds. At the end of a service, Jonathan Edwards and other revivalist preachers would say, something like, “Come now, to the altar and give your life to Jesus.” And people did that by the thousands. That’s conversion.
I don’t want to dwell on Jonathan Edwards and the Great Awakening, but I do want to share with you, that Jonathan Edwards himself, had many conversion experiences. He would announce to the world that he had had a conversion experience. Then a little while later he would announce. “No, no. That wasn’t really a conversion experience after all. But yesterday? Yesterday I had a TRUE conversion experience. Sometime later, he would experience yet another conversion. And the latest one was always the ultimate one with him. So sometimes conversion is a once-in-a-lifetime experience, sometimes conversion happens again and again.
Maybe like me, and like some others of us here, you have experienced a conversion. I love hearing these stories. They are fascinating. I have heard many others over my 22 years as a pastor. So, for example, this is one conversion experience someone shared with me: “My life was going nowhere. I was drinking too much, doing drugs, I had had a series of girl friends. Then on a Sunday morning, at 11 am. I heard Billy Graham preach on TV. I dropped to my knees in front of my TV set, and gave my life to Jesus.”
Long time ago, I talked with a man who murdered someone when he was a teenager. He came to Jesus while he was in prison. Now outside bars, he’s a fervent Christian with a ministry of service. He works at Goodwill. People have told me they came to faith after a bout with depression, or while they were struggling with alcoholism. Or maybe it was that a loved one died and they had to ask some hard questions, “Where is God in all of this? Or even, “IS there a God?”
My own conversion was not one moment in time. It happened over a stretch of time, a time when I had to really study my convictions or what was then, my lack thereof.
Having done quite a lot of reading on this, I can tell you that conversions usually happen after a time of hopelessness. You are at the end of your rope. There just doesn’t seem to be any way forward for you. But you keep going anyway, and discover faith. Martin Luther King, Jr. says, “Faith is taking that first step even though you can’t see the whole staircase.” Amen to that.
We know though, that other Christians who are simply born into a Christian family. They were baptized when they were infants, they suffered through confirmation classes, and they have been attending church services ever since.
I envy people who have enjoyed an unwavering faith their whole lives—never questioning what they believe. It’s less complicated; certainly less painful. On the other hand, that way of being Christian, without questioning their faith, is so foreign to me. Forgive me for saying this, but it seems suspect. I’m sorry. It’s my prejudice. If you’ve never been without faith, how do you know you have it?
But again, that’s my prejudice. How do I, a mere mortal, know what other people are thinking, feeling, believing? Only God knows the inner workings of the human heart. I read that somewhere. Or from scripture, “God knows when we sit down and rise up, and discerns our thoughts even from far away.” I certainly don’t.
However it is you have come to faith, though, through one conversion experience, many conversion experiences, or because you were simply raised in the faith, we can assume you are a believer. You are sitting in these pews.
You know as I know, God chose you, each one of you, even before you took your first breath. At some point, either by way of your life raised in the faith, or through one or several conversion experiences, you chose God back.
And that’s how it was for Saul, and all those first Christ followers we read about in Acts. People of the Way. They were converted to this new way of being in the world. They were on their way to becoming a vibrant community of faith. True for them. True for us. People of the Way. Amen .